A short history of the fail whale

Yesterday evening, I was thinking about all those strange memes on Twitter and FriendFeed. From the fail whale to epic fail and bacon. I like the fail whale most because it’s such a perfect description and has spread very fast – the picture only has been introduced on May 30 (and posted to Flickr by Dave Winer) and now, two months later, the term “fail whale” seems to have become common knowledge of twitter and friendfeed users.

The failwhale - a digital icon

The failwhale - a digital icon

But when did this meme surface? Who started it? Jeff Jarvis in the Edelman White Paper on “Distributed Influence” distinguishes between five different roles people play in spreading memes:

  1. The meme starter who creates a meme and relates it to a few readers
  2. The meme spreader who has a large audience and shares the meme to them
  3. The meme adapter who is reformulating meme content for different smaller and targeted audiences
  4. The meme commentator who is adding comments to the meme
  5. The meme reader who is promoting a meme in the offline world

With the help of Louis Gray and Duncan Riley, it had been possible to identify the meme starter. My first clue had been this article on ReadWriteWeb by Sarah Perez. But while it tells a lot about the famous picture and the different ways it became a commodity, it only cursory deals with the term:

Sean [O’Stean, BK] is responsible for the Fail Whale web site and the Twitter profile, but the name “Fail Whale” itself was coined by Nick Quarantino.

Who is this Nick Quarantino? Google doesn’t seem to know him. Not very plausible for a person starting an internet meme.

The first time the fail whale had been mentioned on FriendFeed was in a thread called “Twitter’s downtime art” on May 31 at 3:18 am, where Robert Scoble commented on the picture:

that is now called “the fail whale.”

And on Flickr, Jeff McNeill answered the question “Has anyone named the Twitter whale yet?” with

Fail Whale!

But on Twitter the meme had already started spreading. Here the first time the term had been mentioned was in a message by GeekMommy on May 31 at 1:00 am:

GeekMommy: @themantisofdoom – can’t take credit for Fail Whale – @scobleizer used it in his Qik Vid today and I laughed too hard. It works for me.

The rest was easy. I just had to take a look at Robert Scoble’s famous video of his visit to Twitter on May 30th. And here it is: Ev Williams said it at 24:19. So the meme starters was Twitter itself, the startup. But only because Robert Scoble gave this term a large platform in his videocast, the meme could take off.

And this perfectly fits the pattern described in the Edelman white paper. The original meme starter did probably not have any mass audience. But he’d only to relate this meme to Robert Scoble, who in turn would spread it to his 20.000 followers and get it started. Then WWDC helped very much to popularize the term and later it became a general concept that could be applied to any sort of failure (“the iPhone fail whale”). So, here’s the complete story of the fail whale so far in a chart which shows how often the term has been twittered:

From May 30 to July 31 there have been 6,580 twitter messages mentioning the fail whale. And it still goes on.

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Comment (1)

  1. That’s a very good story! Now we only need to move on from social sciences to linguistics in order to explain the use of the word “whale” in this context…

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 2:18 pm #